Len Barton wanted to be a teacher from the age of 13. "There's some gratification if you can teach a student something and you can look in their eyes and they're kind of lighting up," said Barton.
The Fresno Unified math teacher has been at it for 45 years. He's almost never missed a day and he's saved up a whole lot of sick days. "We get 10 days sick leave a year and I probably have 400," he said.
When it comes to attendance, Barton is a valedictorian. His dedication is somewhat rare in any job, including teaching. Substitutes filled in almost 7,500 at 45 Clovis Unified schools, through the end of March. In Fresno Unified, substitutes took over classrooms more than 42,000 times at about 130 schools, through the first five months of the school year.
Test scores can suffer too because kids often tune out the subs. "The kids tend to goof off and totally pay no attention to the subs," said Elizabeth DeRoos, whose granddaughter attends Fresno High School.
The scientific research is limited, but a recent Harvard study shows students are at a big disadvantage when their regular math teachers are gone. In fact, absent teachers are a pretty good predictor for low English and math test scores in Fresno Unified. At Cooper Middle School, substitute teachers filled in 657 times through Feb. 25. That's about one day of subs for every student. And they had low standardized test scores -- about 590 in English and math combined. But if you drive less than three miles down the road, you'll get to Fort Miller Middle School. At Fort Miller, subs taught 452 days, or about half a day per student. Their test scores were 35 points higher.
Cooper led the way in substitute days among middle schools in Fresno Unified.
Fresno High had the most among high schools with 1429, almost 11 for every teacher at the school. "What in the hell is going on at this school?" asked DeRoos. "To me, that is unbelievable."
Fresno High's student test scores are in the bottom third in the district.
And with 1130 substitute days, Wilson Elementary had about 350 more than Aynesworth, which had the second most among the lower grades. Test scores at Wilson are also in the bottom third and they get lower as the children get older. Administrators say they investigate when they see a high absentee rate.
"Looking at the climate, getting feedback from the employees as well about what's happening that's having them be absent more than a typical other school," said Kim Mecum, the Fresno Unified associate superintendent for human resources.
The teachers union blames the school district for pulling teachers out of class for meetings and training. But they also see a relationship between bad schools and bad teacher attendance; although they say bad neighborhoods are the real culprit.
"There are schools in Fresno where substitute teachers get a bonus for going to because of the stresses and the difficult teaching situations at some schools, so it's probably a function of that," said Larry Moore, president of the Fresno Teachers Association.
Fresno Unified teachers get 10 sick days and they can call in for five straight days without a doctor's note. The district has disciplined some teachers for too many absences, but administrators also admit the teachers have to leave class too much for meetings and training. They say that should change by next year.
"We definitely want our regular teacher to be in front of the students as much as possible," said Mecum. "No question."
For Len Barton, there really is no question. Day in and day out, he's there for his students. "I think it's the dedication to the kids," he said. "Kids are my first priority."
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